What Can We Learn From Ocean Mind?

August 2, 2016 Wade Doak

This piece, entitled “Ocean Mind”, is part 1 of the prologue to Wade Doak’s book “Encounters with Whales and Dolphins”, published 1988, Auckland and New York. Second hand copies available on Amazon. Published with the author’s permission.

To view more of Doak’s works, see his author page

In the following pages I shall give an account of my first, most unexpected meeting with dolphins in the open sea. That episode set Jan and me on a quest which now spans a decade and two oceans.

After 10 years spent in research, I wonder how much further I will go before answering the questions that first encounter aroused. What are the capacities of large-brained aquatic mammals? What is the quality of their mental experiences? Could convergent evolution have produced an awareness, in the sea, with some potential for relating to large-brained bipeds such as ourselves? Could communication provide us with a window into ocean mind?

Meanwhile, I have attended two international conferences which considered these questions. [1] I have met curious humpback whales off Cape Cod, amiable scientists in Boston and Washington DC and four kinds of dolphins in the Bahamas, Hawaii and New Zealand. I have corresponded with thousands of people who have met dolphins and whales. I have had global feedback from my first book on this subject [2] and the 46 newsletters we have published per our ‘Project Interlock’.

From all this, I now reflect: if a person could become detached from a species-centred viewpoint and move to some hypothetical ‘other’ position, then review the documentation of human/cetacean approaches that have taken place in open-ended situations, perhaps some of my questions would be answered with quite profound implications.

The greatest difficulty is to avoid distorting the picture through the lens of human perception with its potential for unbridled anthropomorphism or giving human characteristics to other creatures, on the one hand, and on the other, the Cartesian extreme whereby animals are seen as reflex machines with no mental experiences whatsoever – or none, that could be accessible to human investigation.

If a person could become detached from a species-centred viewpoint and move to some hypothetical ‘other’ position…perhaps some of my questions would be answered with quite profound implications.

Coming to grips with the possibility of a non-human mind involves a delicate balance between the credulity of those who readily deify dolphins (as has happened in the past) and the institutionalised scepticism of some scientists who identify with the mind set of a generation that subjected cetaceans to captivity, invasive experimentation and weapons research, while larger species were being hunted close to extinction.

In considering the potential of the cetacean mind, I have encountered stumbling blocks. There is a curious linkage between science and religion: both a high church cleric and a field biologist responded with equal scorn to our study. To both, it represented a fundamental challenge to the existing order – a heresy!

Compared with most terrestrial mammals the field study of fast-moving ocean mammals is a ‘Mount Everest’ for science. Ocean research is more expensive and difficult to accomplish than that of a shore-based laboratory. There are really only two pathways for learning about cetacean living patterns – either through passive observation, such as the cliff-top studies of dolphins and whales, [3] or participatory investigation whereby communication may be used as a window into the alien mind.

The likelihood of reputable scientists receiving research grants for study of cetaceans would be greatly enhanced if the project were oriented towards captive subjects and classified military projects. As a result, human understanding of our closest brain rivals has been marred by secrecy and pragmatism. Military scientists are unlikely to give cetacean subjects the mutual respect and sympathy needed to develop an adequate two-way communication model.

Understanding such a powerful ethical code may be the most valuable lesson we could derive from cetacean studies.

Ironically, just as our tool-using species faces the prospect of a self-inflicted nuclear winter, we are on the verge of proving (Dr Kenneth Norris has stated he is 80% certain [4]), both from the fossil record of jaw development and observed feeding patterns, that some species of toothed cetacean (dolphins and whales) may have evolved a lethal biological weapon. It is possessed by each individual but never used other than for stunning prey; not even against their greatest predator – man. Understanding such a powerful ethical code may be the most valuable lesson we could derive from cetacean studies.

Despite numerous barriers, scientific evaluation of the cetacean brain has now made considerable progress, and the most qualified scientists in this field have little doubt that an exceptionally complex biological computer parallel to those of terrestrial mammals but millions of years earlier, has evolved in the ocean.

Because certain experiments of questionable ethics were carried out on living dolphins, scientists actually know more about dolphin brain anatomy than they do about our own. A review of current neuro-anatomical opinion in this field provides a firm baseline for investigation of cetacean responses in the wild. New evidence supports the view that a big brain does correlate with advanced neuro-behavioural qualities. Dr Myron Jacobs, with colleagues Dr Peter Morgane and William McFarland, has made a comprehensive atlas of the dolphin brain. At the 1980 IWC Conference on Cetacean Intelligence held in Washington DC, I heard Dr. Jacobs, and others, present their views on the architecture of the cetacean brain.

Dr Jacobs said: ‘The great expanse of association cortex strongly suggests that cetaceans have a highly developed but different form of intelligence. [6] Dr. James Mead, Curator of Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian Institute, provided a most pertinent point – rather than clouding the issue with arguments of equivalence or superiority, we should be ‘seeking to understand what the cetaceans do with their large brains’ [7].

The cetacean brain has been examined by the neuro-anatomists and has been found to be superb. But what do academics know of its performance? We could begin by examining the record of behavioural research into captive dolphins, such as the celebrated experiment in Hawaii, where Karen Pryor [8] rewarded a dolphin for providing new behaviours and then documented its performance of so many new behaviours that the experimenters were unable to categorise them adequately.

Dr. Sam Ridgeway [9] recorded the E.R.P.S. (Event Related Electrical Potential) from a dolphin brain and compared them with similar experiments in humans and monkeys. Only dolphins and humans were comparable in sharing properties of ERPS known to be ‘decision’ related. In short, the enlarged areas of the cetacean brain operate at levels of complexity previously found only in our own brains.

Rather than clouding the issue with arguments of equivalence or superiority, we should be ‘seeking to understand what the cetaceans do with their large brains’.

A thorough review of captive cetacean research would be inappropriate here. Such evaluations do corroborate the high expectations of the anatomists but still leave us on shaky ground. If we wish to comprehend truly the capacities of a large-brained social creature, it should be in a context where performance is as unbiased as possible. Only in a state of freedom can a creature manifest its full range of behavioural flexibility.

Scientific observers are doing their utmost to learn from the passive studies of field behaviourists, such as Dr. Bernd Wursig. In relatively few areas (Argentina, South Africa, Hawaii) has it been possible to observe the social lives of coastal dolphins from cliff-top vantage points.

In the course of a four-year study of bottlenose dolphins in Argentina, Dr. Wursig and his wife, Melany, gradually learnt to recognise most of the individuals in various subgroups. He then found there was a degree of openness in the groups – some individuals changed their association after a few days while five or six individuals swam together consistently for at least 18 months. When groups met after separation, they vocalised more than they ever had previously, usually stopping to exchange greetings, nuzzling and caressing.

Observing dusky dolphins feed cooperatively, he noticed that they took turns to go through the fish school to feed while others kept the school tightly packed. Wursig realised that such cooperation required highly refined communication, otherwise certain individuals might grab more fish and spend less time herding. He concluded that it was likely the dolphins knew and trusted each other enough to control the situation. As well as remembering each other, they appeared to have an extended concept of ‘groupness’ rather like our concept of belonging to a club or society which excludes constant physical association. Defining ‘awareness’ as being cognizant of one’s actions, or thinking about past, present and future, Wursig asserts that we should admit the possibility of awareness in non-human mammals.[10]

Other field studies corroborate and extend Wursig’s cautious suggestions. In the Hawaiian bay where Captain Cook was killed, Dr Kenneth Norris, [ 11] Professor of Natural History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has set up a 14-year-old study of spinner dolphins. The steep-walled cove offers a rare opportunity to study dolphins in the wild because of the cliff- tops, the clear, calm water and the habits of the spinner dolphins themselves. This tropical species has a nocturnal feeding pattern and social groups spend the daylight hours resting and romping in large sheltered bays such as Kealakekua. Prolonged observation has now yielded some exciting discoveries, far beyond what could be learned from placing such social creatures in captivity.

To date, passive field observation has shown that dolphins have strong, extended mother-infant ties; that females have bonds with infants other than their own offspring, and that maturation is a slow process involving much learning and play behaviour. Their mating system involves rotating consorts without permanent pair bonds; dominant males tend to coordinate group activities, and there is evidence of coordinated group responses to danger and care of the dead.

Dr. Norris asserts that these dolphins know each other as individuals, each emitting a separate whistle call; that they live in a complex, learned society where a dolphin may know as many as a hundred other dolphins; that they spend about one-third of their day reaffirming relationships through caresses and responses. He claims that their safety at sea depends on some kind of whistle network in which they maintain contact with all members of the school, modulating the whistle if danger threatens.

Norris concludes that dolphins are a high order of animals with a more complex social structure than a simple set of family ties; one that functions more like our own society where we have friendships and associations beyond the family. He points us to the prophetic words of Dr. Gregory Bateson (1966), eminent anthropologist and ethologist:[12] ‘My first expectation in studying dolphin communication is that it will prove to have the general mammalian characteristic of being primarily about relationship. This premise is in itself, perhaps, sufficient to account for the sporadic development of large brains among mammals.’


1. “Cetacean Intelligence & the Ethics of Killing Them’, Washington DC 1981.
‘Whales Alive’, Boston 1983. Both held under the auspices of the International Whaling Commission.

2. Dolphin Dolphin, Hodder & Stoughton (1981 Auckland and NY).

3. Drs B. Wursig, R. Payne et al.

4. ‘Do odontocetes debilitate their prey acoustically?’ Abst. Fourth bien. Conf. Mar. Mam. San Fran., 1981.

5. Drs P. Morgane et al. “The Whale Brain & the Anatomical Basis of Intelligence’ (Scribner, NY 1974).

6. M. Jacobs, ‘Studies on Cetacean Brain’. (Paper at Conference, 1981.)

7. J. Mead,’Whalewatcher’. (Fall 1985, No 3.)

8. K. Pryor et al. ‘The creative porpoise: training for novel behaviour’. Jour. Anal. Behav. 12: 653-661.)

9. S. Ridgeway, ‘Cetus’ 3 / 5, p4.

10. B. Wursig, ‘The Question of Dolphin Awareness Approached through Studies in Nature’. “Cetus” 5-1, pp 4-7.

11. K. Norris et al. ‘The Behaviour of Hawaiian spinner dolphins Stenella longirostris’. Fish. Bull. 1986, 77(4), 821-49

12. G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (Chandler Pub. Co. 1972 p337.)


Photo courtesy Atmo Kubesa / Wildquest.